The story of COVID-19 has been one of hardship, loss and uncertainty, and also adaption, resilience and unexpected silver-linings. Simply existing at this moment in time, we’ve reconnected through our collective experience of adversity. Leaders are of course not immune to the psychological impact of this ongoing extreme disruption. Already a lonely role, the current context may have further driven a sense of isolation for those leading organisations. Throw in economic uncertainty, political volatility and an overwhelming sense of responsibility for others, you have a toxic cocktail that can make even the most robust leader feel unwell.
What though are the thinking patterns that we can fall into, when we go through challenging periods in life? Patterns that not kept in check, can become habits that can destroy our wellbeing.
I remember some years ago being made redundant from a job and quickly thinking that I could be destitute in a matter of a few months. This happened despite the evidence of always having worked since leaving school, earning good money and being OK. Catastrophising is a way of thinking that psychologists call a ‘cognitive distortion,’ when we catastrophise we think the worst. Usually, we see an unfavourable outcome to an event and then decide that if this outcome does happen, the results will be a disaster. When our thoughts are identified with catastrophe we dwell in that place and it feels stressful. It’s unclear what exactly causes catastrophising, it could be a coping mechanism learned from our first family or significant events in our life. What’s interesting is that the ‘catastrophe’ is always in the future, something that we think will or could happen and in this sense we’ve imagined it. It’s not really the catastrophe that is harmful to our wellbeing it’s the thought of it.
On occasion I catch myself looking at the stories of success posted on LinkedIn and feel a sense of failure and inadequacy in comparison to others. What in Transactional Analysis (TA) would be described as a feeling of ‘I’m not OK,’ blocks me from being happy for others, creating agitation inside of me. So why do we compare ourselves to other people? Social comparison theory was first proposed in 1954 by psychologist Leon Festinger, he suggested that we have an innate drive to evaluate ourselves, often in comparison to others. What Festinger really nailed was that we human beings can’t actually define ourselves intrinsically or independently. We can only define ourselves in relation to someone else. When reflecting on my own comparing, I notice that like imagining a future catastrophe, the thought ‘I should be doing better than someone else’ is just that, a thought.
In our current context invitations to internally consider and feel like a victim are everywhere. The global system has created the perfect conditions for self-pity. Self-pity shouldn’t be confused with sadness. Sadness is a normal, healthy emotion. Feeling sad can help honour a loss, allowing us to heal an emotional wound. Self-pity is different, when we feel sorry for ourself, we exaggerate our misfortune and experience a sense of hopelessness and helplessness. In feeling pity for ourselves we internally narrate two stories: One is the story of how we think things are and an other story of how we think things should be. Both stories have one key thing in common, we’ve created them in our minds. Central to the construction of these stories is the gathering of evidence, we find data from what we see around us and our personal history to prove our stories, and justify our fixed view of the world. When our unconscious aim is self-pity we resent the gap between the two stories and feel one down. Self-pity will keep us stuck in an unhealthy cycle of negative thoughts, uncomfortable feelings, and passivity. It robs us of the inner strength we need to endure the adversity of the outside world.
Sometimes things don’t work out how we imagined, lockdown continues, the kids don’t go back to school, the business needs another loan to stay afloat. When this happens we can complain, to others and to ourselves. The stress caused by our inner-critic can have a lasting and negative impact on the brain. Studies have shown that complaining related stress damages the neurons in the hippocampus (the part of the brain used for problem solving and cognitive functioning), and impairs its ability to create new neurons. Complaining about dissatisfactions on a regular basis may leave you feeling helpless, hopeless and victimised. Over time, the accumulation of these dissatisfactions and feelings of helplessness may have a negative impact on your mood, self-esteem and general mental health. As with self-pity we see the emergence of two conflicting narratives, how things are and how we would like them to be.
Psychologists describe regret as a negative cognitive or emotional state that involves blaming ourselves for a bad outcome, feeling a sense of loss or sorrow at what might have been, or wishing we could undo a previous choice that we made. Regret is often accompanied by other negative emotions such as guilt, disappointment, self-blame, and frustration. I remember a time mid way through life’s journey when I found myself in a dark wood. The shadow of regret was cast across my path obscuring the way ahead. Gripped by a crippling sense of ‘if only’ I couldn’t function effectively at work or home. In this example, regret teamed up with rumination (see below) and self-pity (see above), together they led me deeper into the forrest dark, alone and scared. The cognitive behaviour therapist Windy Dryden says that, when we are trapped in this cycle of regret, characterised by rigidity and inflexibility, we only seem able to blame ourselves for what has happened, rather than seeing our behaviour in a wider context and understanding why we took the path we did based on the information we had at the time.
Most of us live in our heads, forgetting that we have a body that could offer sanctuary from the constant flow of thoughts. My own experience of rumination is that is like a snare, once your in it your trapped and the harder you pull the tighter it gets. Psychologists describe the process of rumination as continuously thinking about the same thoughts, which tend to be sad or dark. A habit of rumination can be dangerous to our mental health, by letting the problem replay over and over in your mind, we become snared in a cycle of upset. I remember justifying painful rumination by seeing myself as an ‘intellectual’, seeing incessant thinking as a normal part of problem solving. In this way I buffered myself from the fact that far from engaging in a healthy process of problem solving – I was suffering.
Whilst training in executive coaching at the Tavistock Clinic in London I wrote a reflective note that mentioned my own experience of self-hate. The tutor returned my work with the comment “we all battle with a sense of self-hatred”. This thing we do, ‘hate ourselves’ may be the most effective way of destroying our wellbeing of them all. Of course we also externalise hate, according to clinical psychologist Dana Harron, the things people hate about others are the things that they fear within themselves. She suggests thinking about your objects of hate as a movie screen onto which we project unwanted parts of the self. This phenomenon is known as projection, a term coined by Freud to describe our tendency to reject what we don’t like about ourselves. Whether directed inwardly or outwardly, the experience of hate destroys wellbeing. We can all verify this for ourselves, simply by sensing into our personal experience of this strongest of emotions.
Superpowers for Wellbeing
Each of these seven thinking patterns can become habits that can destroy our wellbeing. Sometimes they pair up or even come at us as a group, when this happens their power over us is multiplied. In Reconnect’s next blog learn about the 7 Superpowers for Wellbeing, that will help you develop the skills to overcome negative thinking. If you’re interested in finding out more about Reconnect’s forthcoming Well Leader Programme please go to our website to register you interest.